Michael J. Daley
The typical “solar farm’ with large swaths of – to some – beautiful glistening blue solar panels may look like a monolithic ground cover when glimpsed from the highway, but in fact there is ample open space between rows and beneath panels to allow plant life to thrive. Anyone living near a neglected farm field in the humid, fecund northeast is familiar with the rapid way Nature reclaims the land. Within a few years scrub growth is abundant and shooting up for the clouds. Without regular maintenance, Nature would soon reclaim the sun’s photons all for itself.
Enter husband and wife Lewis Fox and Niko Kochendoerfer, owners of Agrivoltaic Solutions and their flock of 500 sheep. The sheep are helping save the planet one mouthful of grass at a time. The sheep are “living lawnmowers” that are transported from the farm in Leicester, Vermont to various solar installation worksites. In July 2021, Fox, Kochendoerfer, and 60 of their sheep spent a few days at St. Michael’s College solar site in Colchester, Vermont. At one acre, it’s one of the smallest sites Fox maintains. It’s also one of the first college solar array sites to embrace this alternative to traditional fossil-fueled mowing operations.
The EPA estimates lawn maintenance contributes about 4% of CO2 emissions. Additionally, the two-cycle gas engines that power most conventional landscaping tools are serious sources of air pollution and a health hazard to operators, not to mention annoying sonic pollution. A Swedish study determined that an hour lawn mowing creates as much pollution as driving a pickup truck 100 miles.
Encore Renewable Energy owns and manages the St. Michael’s site. Barrington Power helped to structure the financing of the project. Besides the pollution, says Amber Lessard, Director of Asset Management and Construction, conventional mowing presents other problems. “The machines are big and there are lots of posts they can’t navigate. One day two years ago, Lewis cold called us out of the blue to ask if we’d consider using his sheep. The idea fit very well with our company ethics, so we gave it a try.”
Sheep are a perfect match with solar site maintenance. The securely fenced sites provide a ready-made predator safe enclosure. The panels create ample shade for napping. Sheep are small and unlikely to harm any of the equipment. They fit easily under the panels allowing them to access tight areas, such as around pylons, that would require tedious weed whacking by humans. Properly managed with the intensive grazing techniques Fox employs, they are efficient eaters, eager to trim almost everything to golf course standards. The few plant species the sheep don’t favor are quickly dispatched by Fox and his trusty scythe.
Fox grew up on a dairy farm near Middlebury, Vermont but ended up in New York state managing dairy farms there. Kochendoerfer is originally from Bavaria and was previously a shepherd of a large commercial flock in Eastern Germany. In 2017, they acquired some sheep. Seeking a way to bring some added income to the farm, they began a sheep mowing operation. It proved so successful that, along with partner farms in New York, the enterprise now has 1,700 sheep grazing 24 sites in VT, NY, and PA.
Fox’s enthusiasm led him to co-found the American Solar Grazing Association (ASGA), which focuses on helping farmers and solar site developers work together. Lessard is on the ASGA board of advisors. She is excited at how much interest is growing for this practice in her industry, noting that ASGA provides the expertise to make the partnerships successful. “ASGA knows how to design systems with solar grazing in mind.”
According to an article in St. Michael’s news by staff writer Mark Tarnacki, “Fox urges other farmers to look into the opportunity of merging agriculture and solar energy since it can be a significant income stream for farmers and a good way to have a symbiotic relationship, so it’s something we’re excited about.”
Fox, Kochendoerfer, and Encore are pioneers in a global movement broadly called agrivoltaics that strives to keep the farm in solar farming. According to a 2019 article in Wired magazine, there were several hundred agrivoltaic projects around the world, over 1,000 in Japan alone. They quote Max Trommsdorff from the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Systems, observing, “Just eight years back there was almost nothing globally.” The Institute studied a project in Germany called APV-RESOLA and found combining solar panels with cropland “results in a rise in land-use efficiency of more than 60 per cent [a measure of the total productivity of a unit of land] while maintaining 80 per cent of crop yield.”
“Agrivoltaics creates a positive relationship between solar and farming,” Lessard said. “We aren’t just taking land for solar away from farming. It’s no longer an either-or conversation.”
Michael J. Daley is a life-long renewable energy educator and advocate, except for a brief time in high school when he though nuclear power was cool. He lives in a tiny off-grid cabin in Westminster, VT with his wife, Jessie Haas.
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